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Tuchek found guilty of arson


Fri, Oct 25th, 2002
Posted in Features

After deliberating for approximately five hours on Thursday, a jury of eight men and four women found former Lanesboro Police Chief John Tuchek guilty on all eight counts of first degree arson and one count of fifth degree arson for the April 7, 2002 fire that destroyed three historic buildings in Lanesboro.“I am very happy with the verdict,” Tonja DuBois said outside the courtroom. “Tuchek never knocked on our door.” Seconds earlier, law enforcement officials had led a solemn, white faced John Tuchek away in handcuffs.DuBois, now of Rochester, lived with her husband and four children in an apartment above the Ford building in Lanesboro on the night of the fire. She testified during Tuchek’s trial about the difficulty of getting her family, which included her husband on crutches, down a dark stairway to safety.According to testimony in the trial, which included a tape recorded confession, Tuchek purposefully set a fire to a stack of cardboard behind the Little River General Store so that he could rescue his ex-girlfriend, Anessa Dawley, who lived in an apartment above the building. The fire became so hot that it broke a seal on a gas line, which eventually exploded. The gas in turn helped fuel the fire so that it expanded to the second floor and eventually to adjacent buildings.Prosecution Prosecutor Peter Orput of the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, presented a battery of witnesses that included victims from the fire, Tuchek’s ex-girlfriend, expert forensic testimony, as well as testimony from investigators. In the taped confession that Orput played for the jury, the defendant initially said that he had received dispatch calls stating that kids had been throwing rocks at buildings in Lanesboro. Before leaving his home in Preston, he filled an empty oil lantern and spilled oil on a dish rag. Not wanting to throw the rag in the garbage, he placed it in a plastic bag and took it with him in his truck. Arriving in Lanesboro, Tuchek stopped to check the back door of the Little River General Store building. He then realized that he had the bag in his hand and seeing a cigarette lighter on the ground, he decided to dispose of the rag by burning it. He started the rag on fire and eventually kicked it to put it out and the rag jumped into the cardboard boxes. The fire then got out of hand.After considerable prodding from Fillmore County Captain Daryl Jensen and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) Special Agent Herm Dybevik, Tuchek admitted to dropping the rag on the cardboard. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” a crying Tuchek said on the tape. “I wanted to do something so that she (Dawley)would be proud of me.”A key witness for the prosecution was J. David Tebow, a lab analyst with the BCA, who analyzed charred samples from the fire scene proving that an accelerant was used to start the fire.Tebow explained that lab analysis showed that gasoline was found at the source of the fire. Gasoline has a flash point of less than 100 degrees F, while lamp oil is above 100 degrees F.“Are you certain it was gasoline?” Orput asked Tebow.“Yes, I am,” Tebow responded.“Are you certain it was not lamp oil?” Orput continued.“Yes, I am,” Tebow said.By law, an accelerant with a flash point of less than 100 degrees F used to start a fire is considered a “dangerous weapon.”The state also called Deputy Fire Marshall Steve Wolf of Stewartville who testified that the origin of the fire was in cardboard stacked outside the back door of the Little River General Store. Using exhibits, Wolf showed burn marks on the wall in an inverted V formation that showed where the fire started and then progressed.

DefenseAttorney Mark Kurzman tried to establish through cross examination of witnesses that it was possible that the fire was started on a trailer full of cardboard near the building and that the fire spread to a leaky gas line. He also tried to show that the gasoline remnants found at the fire could have been there from before the fire.The defense admitted that Tuchek had set the fire but that he never intended to destroy or damage the buildings or hurt anyone. Intent is crucial to proving first degree arson. The defense maintained that Tuchek was guilty of fifth degree arson, which does not show intent to damage or destroy buildings. In cross examining Captain Jensen, Kurzman asked if they had found gasoline on Tuchek’s hands, clothes or whether they had found a container for gas anywhere.Jensen said, “No.”“Do you have any evidence that establishes that John Tuchek intended to damage the buildings?”“No, I do not,” Jensen responded.Following Jensen’s testimony on Wednesday, the prosecution rested its case. In a surprise move, Kurzman, without calling one witness, told the court, “Your honor, the defense rests.”Outside of court Kurzman explained his decision not to put the defendant on the stand, “I just had the chief investigator in this case say that he had no evidence that my client intended to damage the buildings.”

Closing remarksIn his closing remarks, Orput walked the jury step by step through the events leading up to the “hero” fire that Tuchek started. Orput said that Tuchek wanted to damage the Little River General Store “sufficiently to get Anessa Dawley to return to him after saving her.” He said that by starting cardboard on fire in the back of the building that “it was reasonable to conclude that this (buildings burning) would be the probable consequences of his actions.”In his closing remarks, Kurzman said, “John Tuchek is stupid. John Tuchek is a criminal. But he is not guilty of first degree arson. He is guilty of fifth degree arson.” Kurzman reminded the jury of Captain Jensen’s testimony stating that the investigator had no evidence that Tuchek intended to damage the buildings. AftermathFollowing the verdict, Kurzman asked the court on Thursday to waive a pre-sentence investigation and proceed to sentencing. But Orput told the court that he had hoped that victims of the fire would be able to speak at sentencing.The court set sentencing for December 6, 2002.Because there was not adequate space at the Fillmore County Jail to house Tuchek, he was taken to Olmsted County Jail on Thursday night and to the Minnesota Corrections Facility at St. Cloud over the weekend. When asked outside of the courtroom, which single piece of evidence was key to the conviction, Orput said, “It was how the evidence stacked up. You had a motive, and then you had the defendant’s own testimony.”Orput said that victory in this case is bittersweet, “The victims are out huge property losses and you can’t bring those buildings back.”Tuchek could receive 48 months for each of the eight counts of first degree arson and be required to make restitution. But Orput said that it is likely that he will ask the court that a sentence of 48 months for one count be doubled. Tuchek will have to serve at least a minimum of three years due to the fact that the jury found that he used a “dangerous weapon” (gasoline) to start the fire. The court could move up or down from sentencing guidelines. Kurzman said that the day after sentencing, he would file an appeal on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence. “This was a very emotional case. Hopefully, the Appellate Court will be able to look beyond the emotion to what evidence there is.”“John Tuchek is willing to take responsibility for what he did, but not for something he didn’t do,” Kurzman said.For Kirsten Mensing, the owner of the Little River General and the Ice Cream Garage, two businesses destroyed in the fire, Tuchek’s conviction is just one more hurtle in a long ordeal.“I am happy about the verdict, but there are still a lot of legal issues, and I have two businesses that have suffered,” Mensing said. “I’m still left with a mess.”

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